[Guest Post] Radiance

Saturday, 15 August 2020


EDITOR'S NOTE 

I recommend Catherynne M. Valente to anyone who will listen to me. She's a writer with a Classic's degree who writes literary genre fiction. Her children's series, FAIRYLAND, is a masterpiece meant to grow old with. I strive to read everything in her name, but as previously mentioned, you should definitely *not* start with RADIANCE. Over-written and over the top, it is a bit of a car crash. A beautiful post-modernist, decopunk pulp SF alt-history space opera car crashone that our guest reviewer has picked apart and explained exactly where it went wrong. His essay is not only an an important companion piece to the novel, but in understanding post-modernism's failings and what stories are for. — Emily

BY ERIK

BECAUSE I AM UNABLE to resist the seductions of irony, here is a quote from Robert Downey Jr.:

This is probably going to get quoted in every publication just because I said it. And I’m not even saying anything. I’m not talking about my films, I’m not talking about my life, and I’m not talking about the world. And yet, the media will print it simply because I said it. And at this moment in time, I bet there is an artist around the corner of this hotel, on the street, with a mind far beyond ours, but we will never listen to him simply because he has not appeared in a movie.

He goes on to say, “And that is what is fucked up about our culture,” but that’s not the point I’m trying to make.

Instead, I’d like to appreciate for a moment the popularity of celebrities and the compelling nature of fiction in general. We all have known the experience of watching a film and finding ourselves on the edge of our seats, empathizing with the characters. This, even though we know that they are just actors, in NO DANGER whatsoever, and that, even if “based on a true story,” what’s actually happening on the screen is an artificial construct, no more real than a golem’s dream. Yet there we are, caring. Somehow these characters in their imaginary worlds approximate truth in a way that actual reality, confusing and indeterminate as it is, cannot.

Many people, particularly a certain stripe of intellectual, would call us fools and escapists, mere addicts of the phantasmagorical. I know a fellow who foreswore all fiction and instead dedicated himself exclusively to documentary film and non-fiction books (and also joined a nudist colony). David Foster Wallace in his essay E Unibus Pluram suggested our television obsession causes a chain reaction of disassociation in which American fiction writers get their dosage of reality from fiction – which is itself written by personages who have based their reality on consumed fiction – thereby creating a recursive spiral down the rabbit hole, until what we think is reality is not real but an infinitely regressed, telephone-game garbled version of it.

Even if I were to agree in principle, I would not agree in sentiment. I think humanity’s capacity for empathy is nothing short of amazing.


“We all have known the experience of watching a film and finding ourselves on the edge of our seats, empathizing with the characters. Humanity’s capacity for empathy is nothing short of amazing.”


I'd say that when we engage in narrative, we are exercising our empathy muscles. All forms of narrative do this, but the intimate nature of written literature does it best. A good book – with complex, diverse characters and morally gray situations – is the empathy version of a Crossfit workout. As such, I’d claim that readers are, if not the best people in the world, at least the most empathetic. I believe our pathetic little meatsack hearts, brimming with narrative and character, carry on the great work of humanity in a way that the mighty wielders of the sword and the hammer and the abacus do not. I say that the greatest and most beautiful machine or theory, wielded without empathy, is not only inhuman, but antihuman.

Alas, Radiance demands little exercise of our empathy muscles (or perhaps too much). It’s not that it doesn’t contain complex characters, morally gray situations, or a great imagination, but that they are not presented in an engaging manner. Instead, the author utilizes language, structure, genre, and form as ends unto themselves, rather than as means to an end (that end typically being the exploration of humanity). Put simply, the author Catherynne Valente wanted to eat her cake and have it too. To quote from an interview she had with John Scalzi:

I’m not going to lie. This book is crazypants. I threw everything I had into it. Heart and soul and probably some cartilage and eyeball fluid, too. I wanted to write a melodrama about a wild, living and breathing and squabbling Solar System. I wanted to write a horror-romance about huge, elemental aliens. I wanted to write a non-linear postmodern SF novel that was also a page-turning thriller because I secretly always wanted to write a hardboiled noir murder mystery. I wanted to write a badass adventure about film patents. I wanted to write a book about movies. About seeing and being seen. About what the camera does to us when it never leaves our side. About who has the right to speak, and who has to buy it. About the meaning of science fiction in a science fictional universe. And through it all I wanted to write about a lost girl who didn’t come home. It all hangs together, I promise!

Alas, Catherynne Valente, you’ve made a promise you couldn’t keep. Not for this reader at least. It doesn’t hang together. It’s too much in too little space. Worse, you’ve committed the one sin no author – whether her book is a non-linear postmodern narrative or not – can commit: you didn’t give us a reason to care.


“It’s not that Radiance doesn’t contain complex characters, morally gray situations, or a great imagination, but that they are not presented in an engaging manner. Instead, the author utilizes language, structure, genre, and form as ends unto themselves, rather than as means to an end.”


Now those who do like this book might argue that I’m committing the affective fallacy. That I’m critiqueing a piece of literature based on how it makes us FEEL (as opposed to what it makes us think). They would trumpet the book’s non-linear narrative and metafictional elements as an explicit choice that may make the book more difficult to read but that is NECESSARY to the story’s ultimate purpose: To explore the subjective nature of reality, and of film’s intersections with it, and the methods and consequences of how and where we choose to focus the spotlights of our eyeballs, ears, and minds.

I would counter that not all non-linear narratives are created equal. Even if the mere EXISTENCE of a non-linear narrative OUGHT to tell us the author is trying to make some metafictional comment about genre or narrative, that doesn’t mean she actually accomplished her aims. I’d go further still: even the ACCOMPLISHMENT of these aims wouldn’t necessarily make the book worth reading. Instead, each reader must ultimately ask him or herself, is the metafictional exploration of genre worth reading if the author has failed to provide a compelling underpinning of humanity?


“Is the metafictional exploration of genre worth reading if the author has failed to provide a compelling underpinning of humanity?”


My complete lack of engagement with this novel would answer a resounding NO.

But do not mistake this as MERELY an opposition to postmodern fiction. True enough I consider postmodern lit a form of intellectual masturbation, but a 1-star rating from me is an even greater condemnation. I think Radiance is a particularly bad example of post-modern lit.

By way of contrast, I’d bring up Italo Calvino’s post-modern book If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler. That book is in many ways as difficult and experimental as Radiance. But I love it. I love it because underpinning its non-linear structure is a humor and keen sense of the absurd that give readers a reason to care.

More technically, Calvino’s novel plays with structure by way of concatenation. By this, I mean it tells micro-stories compelling in their own right but then ends them at the height of climax, a level of tease to make any Arabian concubine proud. A Winter’s Night’s meta-story is then about the reader (often pronounized as ‘you’) in his search to find the rest of the story and therefore closure. Story structure thus mirrors story theme: how readers engage with narrative as a whole and how our expectations for a standard narrative structure (rising action -> climax -> falling action -> denouement) have become inculcated in us and in fact now inform our fundamental conceptualizations of things like romantic relationships, life and death, and even our debates on intelligent design versus the theory of evolution. Deep deep stuff.


A Winter’s Night’s story structure mirrors story theme. Radiance's form and content have a fractious, dissonant (and unengaging) relationship.


Catherynne Valente, as the above quote reveals, thinks she’s also writing about deep deep stuff. But the difference is that Radiance's form and content have a fractious, dissonant (and unengaging) relationship. In a different interview with Clarkesworld Magazine, she writes:

I had to give myself permission to do certain things, use certain tricks—like including scripts, audio, shifting POV, and the other ephemera and metafictional elements you mention. It’s pretty much a postmodern free-for-all. At first I kept thinking: I can’t just describe what’s onscreen in a movie inside the book. That just makes it look like I’d rather be making a movie. I had to get to a point where I could say: I actually can do that because it’s my book and that’s the right way to do it.

That phrase – “a postmodern free-for-all” – says it all. The book is a mish-mash of ideas and forms, its structure a shotgun spread rather than a sniper’s intimate voyeurism. The quote as a whole is an admission of self-indulgence. She includes scripts, audio, shifting POV, and other ephemera and metafictional elements not because doing so highlights explorations on “seeing and being seen; on what the camera does to us when it never leaves our side; on who has the right to speak, and who has to buy it; and on the meaning of science fiction in a science fictional universe” – but because she bloody well wanted to, propagating the mistaken post-modern confusion that MERE EXPLORATION of structure is, BY ITSELF, evidence of great and skillful artifice, if not authorial courage, and therefore worthy of being read.


The book is a mish-mash of ideas and forms, propagating the mistaken post-modern confusion that MERE EXPLORATION of structure is, BY ITSELF, evidence of great and skillful artifice.


Well I disagree. I would quote Picasso when he wrote, “In my opinion to search means nothing… To find is the thing. Nobody is interested in following a man who, with his eyes fixed on the ground, spends his life looking for the purse that fortune should put in his path. The one who finds something no matter what it might be, even if his intention were not to search for it, at least arouses our curiosity, if not our admiration.”

As I read through Radiance’s self-indulgent epilogue (which amounts, quite clearly, to the author justifying her decision to use a shotgun structure because “humans do not proceed in an orderly fashion from one scene to the next” – which, by the by, is a standard postmodern claim that is completely false. Au contraire, it is the tragedy of humanity that we have no choice but to creep in a chronologically linear fashion from scene to scene and tomorrow to tomorrow until the last syllable of our borrowed time); its boring essays from fictional film critics; its lists of ship’s manifest (and here I thought I left that self-important scheiss behind back on Walden Pond); and its long rants mistaking high-octane, purple prose like, “the Earth fucked the sky and made a hundred children” for genuine exploration of humanity – as I went through all this, I was never once engaged mano y mano. This was no story but a magic show by a patchwork golem, a dazzling array of images and words that held all the cohesive meaning of a fireworks display. I was never shown why any of these characters might have a superior grasp than I do on, e.g., who has a right to speak, or what it means to be seen, or what the camera does to us when it never leaves our side. Worse, I was never shown why I should CARE what any of these characters think.


“The standard postmodern claim that humans do not proceed in an orderly fashion from one scene to the next is completely false. It is the tragedy of humanity that we have no choice but to creep in a chronologically linear fashion from scene to scene and tomorrow to tomorrow until the last syllable of our borrowed time.”


In short, I would argue Radiance failed to ever find, or demonstrate, humanity in necessary quantities to overcome the artificiality of its narrative and structure. Its demands on my empathy muscles came far too late, far after it had lost me.

Earlier, I brought up Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night, a Traveler as a successful example of postmodern literature. It is therefore with great irony (and thus also circularity) that I believe the concluding paragraph from NY Times’ 1981 review of the book nails exactly how I feel about Radiance:

And then the book, for all its formidable wit and skill, is a confession of failure, and I think we shall get it wrong if we insist on converting all its apparent misses into clever hits. The stalled writer, the one who is in love with beginnings, says, "I would like to be able to write a book that is only an incipit, that maintains for its whole duration the potentiality of the beginning, the expectation still not focused on an object." This is a desire, not a program. An expectation permanently unfocused will die, and an expectation that can't be focused is simply a disappointment. … As a book about broken narrative promises this work is impeccable. But its very success in this vein leads us to the sadness of its central subject, the absence of the artist, Dickens, Tolstoy, Stendhal, Dostoyevsky, who could brilliantly keep the promises he made.  

 


Cover art: Le Voyage dans la Lune. 1902. Directed by Georges Méliès. 

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